HBD: Human Biodiversity

Women and the Enlightenment

There’s an article in The New York Times Magazine by Daniel Bergner on female sexuality.  Researcher Meredith Chivers showed men and women videos of apes having sex, male heterosexual intercourse, lesbian sex, a man masturbating, a woman masturbating, a chiseled man walking naked and a nude women exercising.

The men, on average, responded genitally in what Chivers terms “category specific” ways. Males who identified themselves as straight swelled while gazing at heterosexual or lesbian sex and while watching the masturbating and exercising women. They were mostly unmoved when the screen displayed only men. Gay males were aroused in the opposite categorical pattern. Any expectation that the animal sex would speak to something primitive within the men seemed to be mistaken; neither straights nor gays were stirred by the bonobos. And for the male participants, the subjective ratings on the keypad matched the readings of the plethysmograph. The men’s minds and genitals were in agreement.

All was different with the women. No matter what their self-proclaimed sexual orientation, they showed, on the whole, strong and swift genital arousal when the screen offered men with men, women with women and women with men. They responded objectively much more to the exercising woman than to the strolling man, and their blood flow rose quickly — and markedly, though to a lesser degree than during all the human scenes except the footage of the ambling, strapping man — as they watched the apes. And with the women, especially the straight women, mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same person. The readings from the plethysmograph and the keypad weren’t in much accord. During shots of lesbian coupling, heterosexual women reported less excitement than their vaginas indicated; watching gay men, they reported a great deal less; and viewing heterosexual intercourse, they reported much more. Among the lesbian volunteers, the two readings converged when women appeared on the screen. But when the films featured only men, the lesbians reported less engagement than the plethysmograph recorded. Whether straight or gay, the women claimed almost no arousal whatsoever while staring at the bonobos.

Chivers believes that for females desire and physical readiness for intercourse, “the physiological and the subjective,” are two separate but overlapping systems.  When a woman has visual clues that there’s a chance sex will happen her vagina prepares for the possibility.  This theory goes a way towards explaining “rape fantasy.”

Besides the bonobos, a body of evidence involving rape has influenced her construction of separate systems. She has confronted clinical research reporting not only genital arousal but also the occasional occurrence of orgasm during sexual assault. And she has recalled her own experience as a therapist with victims who recounted these physical responses. She is familiar, as well, with the preliminary results of a laboratory study showing surges of vaginal blood flow as subjects listen to descriptions of rape scenes. So, in an attempt to understand arousal in the context of unwanted sex, Chivers, like a handful of other sexologists, has arrived at an evolutionary hypothesis that stresses the difference between reflexive sexual readiness and desire. Genital lubrication, she writes in her upcoming paper in Archives of Sexual Behavior, is necessary “to reduce discomfort, and the possibility of injury, during vaginal penetration. . . Ancestral women who did not show an automatic vaginal response to sexual cues may have been more likely to experience injuries during unwanted vaginal penetration that resulted in illness, infertility or even death, and thus would be less likely to have passed on this trait to their offspring.”

Evolution’s legacy, according to this theory, is that women are prone to lubricate, if only protectively, to hints of sex in their surroundings. Thinking of her own data, Chivers speculated that bonobo coupling, or perhaps simply the sight of a male ape’s erection, stimulated this reaction because apes bear a resemblance to humans — she joked about including, for comparison, a movie of mating chickens in a future study. And she wondered if the theory explained why heterosexual women responded genitally more to the exercising woman than to the ambling man. Possibly, she said, the exposure and tilt of the woman’s vulva during her calisthenics was proc­essed as a sexual signal while the man’s unerect penis registered in the opposite way.

Bergner brings forth the suggestion that a woman’s desire stems partly from feeling that she herself is wanted.  William Saletan of Slate wonders

[b]ut if that's what these fantasies are—one person drawing her will from the will of another—what does it say about us? If derivativeness of will is, as some of these researchers posit, a fundamental difference between male and female arousal, what does it say about equality between the sexes? Are women, in this sense, inherently less autonomous?

This opens up a host of interesting philosophical and political questions.  But first of all, we must say that to a materialist, human autonomy is a myth.  As I’ll explain below, it’s a very useful and even necessary myth, but in a purely scientific sense neither men nor women are any more autonomous than rocks.

Now even those of us who know this can’t help but see others as decent, honorable, evil, etc. and have feelings connected with these judgements.  If we started seeing other humans as nothing but mindless blobs programmed by their genes and environment, even if such a thing were possible, we’d lose much of what it is to be human.  Not only that, but much of the deterrence against bad behavior and encouragement towards pro-social comportment would disappear.

So in what respect does the question of whether men are more autonomous than woman make sense?  We may ask to what extent we can use the template of the self-interested individual with free will to predict the behavior of males better than that of females.

The NYT piece does suggest that the passivity of women, or the tendency to be more outwardly directed, extends to areas beyond sex.

Women might more likely have grown up, for reasons of both bodily architecture and culture — and here was culture again, undercutting clarity — with a dimmer awareness of the erotic messages of their genitals. Chivers said she has considered, too, research suggesting that men are better able than women to perceive increases in heart rate at moments of heightened stress and that men may rely more on such physiological signals to define their emotional states, while women depend more on situational cues. So there are hints, she told me, that the disparity between the objective and the subjective might exist, for women, in areas other than sex.

Once when I was in kindergarten the teacher took two transparent containers of water, one much larger than the other and asked which had more liquid in it.  I saw everybody in the class raise their hands for A, the larger one.  I was in my own little world and hadn’t even heard the question but put my arm up with everyone else.  Only one boy said B and he was right.  Of course it had to be a boy, because no girl would’ve believed that she was right based on her own internal logic when everybody else in the class was saying A.

Back to this issue of “autonomy” in the way I, and any atheist, must define the word, we could ask a few narrower questions about sex differences that have the potential to be settled empirically if they haven’t already.  Controlling for intelligence, are men more likely to rely on empirical arguments and logic instead of fashionability when coming up with opinions?  Considering that all race realist bloggers are males, except for one testosterone charged bisexual, the exception that proves the rule, I say yes.

The evolutionary basis for this doesn’t seem too hard to figure out.  As a prehistoric man, you have to decide the best way to find food and kill the members of the other tribe.  Whether you’re right or wrong will determine whether you live or die.  As a woman, you simply have to get along.  If your tribe is conquered, you probably won’t be eliminated and your genes may even prosper.  Even if nothing that cataclysmic happens, you’re going to be a daughter first and then a wife.  Simply don’t offend anybody and you’ll be taken care of.  It’s not that women are more dishonest, it’s that they’re less likely to consider the idea that the tribe is wrong and will believe what they’re supposed to believe with the conviction of a man looking at empirical proof.  This isn’t to say that all men are fearless contrarians; for humanity in general the freethinkers are the eccentrics.  It’s just that the conformity in a man is more likely to be tempered by some acknowledgment of truth as an objective reality.

Like I said, an affirmative answer to Saletan's question implies quite a bit.   Some other issues we may ponder from a similar perspective.

-Is female psychology and physiology more variable inter and/or intra-culturally?  If yes, does that mean that liberal theories about blaming society for criminality and degeneracy have more truth to them when we're talking about girls and women?

-Are women more likely to find liberty in the classical liberal sense overwhelming  and lonely?

-Do the two main institutions produced by the Enlightenment, capitalism and democracy, not work as well when they involve a sex which doesn't conform as well to the Enlightenment understanding of what a human being is?